The following is an email exchange with a woman, we'll call her Gina, who wrote to me about feeling intimidated when she talks to people she looks up to. Her mind goes blank and she can't think of anything to say.
I am terribly shy and I feel intimidated by certain people easily. Lots of times when I meet people, or even try to carry on a conversation with people I have spoken to before, my mind goes blank and I have nothing to say. I can always think of tons of things to say after. I think people see me as boring and stuck up.
Adam Khan's response:
When you are having a conversation with people, do you feel nervous when your mind goes blank? Also, you say you feel intimidated by certain people easily. What kind of people? In your life right now, how many of these people do you have?
Thanks for replying. I feel nervous as soon as I have to talk to someone other than a close friend or close relative. I am intimidated by people who I look up to, I guess. There are only a few people who are regularly in my life. The rest I meet once in a while — quite a few.
Tell me, Gina, when you feel nervous or intimidated, are you still able to talk? Do you stammer? Do you sweat profusely? Or do you feel uncomfortable but outwardly don't show it?
I can talk, but I can't really think of anything to say other than a bit of small talk. After that, my mind just kind of goes blank. I don't stammer or sweat. I feel uncomfortable and it probably shows because I fidget or look away a lot.
I focus mostly on how I am feeling instead of on the conversation or the other person, but I don't know how to not do that.
Adam asks one more question:
I think I am getting a pretty good idea of what you're going through. You feel uncomfortable, your mind goes kind of blank, and you focus more on how you're feeling than on the conversation (or the person). Before I offer a remedy, I have one more question. What books, if any, have you read on overcoming this problem?
I have read: The Power of Positive Thinking, Painfully Shy, and How Other People See You (I don't remember the authors), and a ton of internet stuff. Most of the books have something I can use, but the more I read, the more I think I need to improve. I kind of feel like everything I do could be improved and I don't know where to start.
Okay, Gina, here's what I think:
I think you can read people well, but you lack a very specific social skill: Small talk. You don't know how to put other people at ease. You don't know how to make conversation flow easily and comfortably with people you don't know. This is a skill and it won't take you very long to learn it. I'm assuming you've read this, but if you haven't, read it several times over the next week or so:
The best material I've ever come across on small talk is in the introductory lecture for the Dale Carnegie Course: Effective Communications and Human Relations. The introductory lecture is the first session of the 12 week course, but it is free and allows you to try it out before you commit yourself. There is no high-pressure sales to deal with. And you will not have to give a speech. But you will learn all you need to know about having comfortable conversations with people you don't know. I'm sure they have these introductory lectures in your area.
My second best recommendation is to read Larry King's book, How To Talk To Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere, especially Chapter 2, called Breaking The Ice. If you can converse with your friends and family but not easily with strangers, it is only because you are missing a little know-how. Larry King lays it all out for you. Read that chapter and re-read it every week for awhile. Master the material. Put it into practice.
My third recommendation, and I think you should do all three, is to get the audiobook, The Relationship Cure, by John Gottman. His audiobook is really for developing closer relationships, but the concept he presents about a "bid" is extremely good and very powerful, and just what you need to know about.
You wanted to know where to start, Gina. You don't need to worry about your fear right now. Just concern yourself with one thing: Learning to have a casual conversation with a stranger. Learning how to make it easy and comfortable. Just concentrate on learning small talk. It is a skill everybody must learn if they want to get on in the world. If you want just one thing to do, find an introductory lecture of the Dale Carnegie class and attend it. It costs nothing. And you will learn the one skill you need to know.
Thanks for your help. I will try these things until I find what works.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.